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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

When the wealthy are the majority: socioeconomic disparity at Tufts


On Jan. 18, the New York Times published an article titled “Some Colleges Have More Students from the Top 1 Percent than the Bottom 60,” in which Tufts University was ranked 10th in the United States on the list of colleges with the highest wealth disparities.

The Times piece showed that this lack of diversity is a national issue among elite universities, as the percent of student bodies from the top one percent of wealth earners nationally has increased over two percent in the past decade, while the share of students from the bottom 40 percent has decreased by the same amount. Meanwhile, as the Times piece points out, during that decade, overall economic inequality in the United States also increased.

According to a recent study conducted by The Equality of Opportunity Project, which the Times used in its reporting, 77 percent of Tufts students come from the top 20 percent of wealth earners in the U.S. The study also showed that  Tufts has one of the highest median family incomes at $224,800 among elite institutions, and that about half of the student body comes from the top five percent of wealth earners in the United States.

To many members of the Tufts community, the university’s lack of socioeconomic diversity comes as no surprise -- Tufts is one of the most expensive schools in the country, and economic privilege is so widespread that there’s even a popular Instagram account documenting the prevalence on campus of Canada Goose jackets, an item that costs upwards of $1,000 retail and has become a cultural indicator of wealth.

“It’s things like that that people don’t even realize are massive markers of the wealth that is concentrated on this campus,” sophomore Parker Breza said.

Perhaps more indicative than the jackets are statistics readily and publicly available through the Office of Institutional Research and Evaluation, including the fact that only about half of Tufts students receive financial aid from the university.

“If you look at all of our peer institutions, they’re bad, but Tufts is pretty much one of the worst,” according to Breza, who helped spearhead the Tufts Student Action’s #HaltTheHike campaign in November 2016. “There’s a massive problem between a very small amount of students who have very high [financial] needs, who live an extremely different life on this campus than the vast majority of students who are living an extremely wealthy, I would call it lavish, lifestyle.”

According to Breza, Tufts Student Action (TSA) is a student group devoted to fighting for racial, economic and gender justice.

Sophomores Bethany Kirby and Charlie Zhen expressed similar frustrations, and said that their experience as low-income students at Tufts allowed them to be more cognizant of this disparity.

“It’s very alienating to hear and see the wealth being displayed sometimes, especially [because in] some of the communities we come from, a majority of people in our communities are impoverished, and then we come here and we’re a minority in that sense,” Kirby said. “It’s like a new world honestly. It’s a culture shock to see this wealth.”

Zhen said that the Times article’s statistics, rather than its overall message, are what stood out to him.

“My only surprise came from the actual numbers of [the article]. It wasn’t like, ‘Whoa, this place is rich’ — like, no s--t, right?” Zhen said. “It’s validating in some ways but also really upsetting.”

Dean of Student Success and Advising Robert Mack said that during his time at Tufts, fostering socioeconomic diversity has become more of a priority for the university, and he expressed surprise at the statistics in the Times article.

“The university’s always working hard on our financial aid campaigns and working to have funding available so we can do as much as possible for all our students who are interested in coming to Tufts,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t be able to explain why the numbers aren’t showing that way despite our initiatives.”

Greg Victory, executive director of the Career Center, agreed that the focus on socioeconomic diversity has increased over his 20 years in higher education, both generally across the nation and specifically at Tufts. He cited the university’s strategic plans as reflective of Tufts’s increased, consistent focus on socioeconomic diversity.

“[What happens] as Tufts focuses more on these issues ... is people become more and more aware of these issues,” Victory said. “We have always taken into consideration students’ financial need ... [but] I think there’s been a much more sort of focused and concerted effort as you look at the university tackling these types of issues.”

Mack pointed to recent initiatives, such as Tufts becoming a QuestBridge partner, the creation of the Bridge to Liberal Arts Success at Tufts (BLAST) program in 2012 and the university’s 2015 decision to accept and provide aid for undocumented and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students as evidence of Tufts’ commitment to making the student body more socioeconomically diverse.

In an email to the Daily, Director of Financial Aid Patricia Reilly outlined a few steps that Tufts would take to address the wealth inequality highlighted by the Times article.

“We are proud to be one of a small number of universities committed to meeting the demonstrated financial need of all admitted undergraduate students,” she said.

It is worth pointing out that meeting 100 percent of the financial need of accepted students does not correlate with efforts to accept more students with financial need. Additionally, many of the institutions identified in the Times article as having extreme wealth disparity meet all students’ demonstrated need. These include Washington University, which the article listed as having the lowest socioeconomic diversity of any elite institution.

According to Breza, another issue with Reilly’s point is that the university’s process for calculating a student’s “demonstrated financial need” is not transparent and often results in students receiving less aid than they feel their economic condition warrants.

“One of our demands through #HaltTheHike is to increase transparency about how need is actually calculated and what a family contribution actually is, because … when I applied to financial aid, I was getting anything from a full ride to literally no aid,” Breza said. “That’s because all these schools say they use the FAFSA and the CSA profiles, [which] they do, and then they use their own formulas to calculate different needs.”

Both Breza and Zhen pointed to Tufts’ 2009 revocation of its need-blind policy as a significant reason for the student body’s increasing lack of socioeconomic diversity.

“We have a policy that does look at how much revenue each student is bringing to this campus, which dictates who actually is and isn’t on this campus,” Breza said.

Mack said that the need-blind policy, which was only in place for two years, was canceled solely because the funding that Bacow had received to make it viable ran out.

“We didn’t have that policy and then abandon it,” Mack said. “[President Bacow] was like, ‘This would be great to do with this huge amount of money we just got,’ and then that money only goes so far, and so therefore we had to kind of pull back to the non need-blind practice.”

Mack said that while reinstating a need-blind admissions policy was likely out of the question due to financial concerns, raising money for financial aid remains a critical goal of the university.

But Zhen insisted that it was a question of priority rather than ability, pointing to multiple recent expenditures that could have gone toward financial aid for incoming students.

“I think that if they wanted to make Tufts need-blind, they could,” he said. “If they figured that they didn’t need another science building but instead wanted to focus on improving life for low-income students and students of color, they could.”

Mack said that there is a growing sense of responsibility to improve and expand the opportunities available for low-income students, at least among administrators in offices concerning student life.

“I think [concern for low-income students] is there ... I at least feel like this doesn’t get as far as it did without the right type of support,” Mack said.

However, Mack pointed out that neither he nor those he works with closely at the university have any say in budgeting.

“I tend to work closely with people who are invested in students. So we talk about how important students are and how money should be allocated, but we don’t also run the money or the budget,” Mack said.

Reilly also stressed that the university was troubled by the statistics in the Times piece, and that increasing socioeconomic diversity is a priority for the financial aid office.

“We recognize that there is much to do to make a Tufts education more accessible ... as an institution that is committed to inclusion, diversity and equity, we care deeply about the gap identified by the study,” she wrote.

For Breza, university rhetoric holds little meaning if not accompanied by more proactive policy changes.

“Things like valuing diversity and social mobility are part of Tufts’ core values, but they’re not actually lived out, and they’re not instituted within our policies,” he said.

Breza also pointed out that Tufts lags behind other elite institutions that have taken steps toward increasing socioeconomic diversity.

Vassar College, for example, increased its acceptance of students who qualified for federal Pell Grants by over 10 percent in 2007, and it is now ranked by the Times as the most economically diverse elite college in the country. Meanwhile, Tufts’ acceptance of students on Pell Grants decreased between 2008 to 2014, according to the Times statistics.

“There are definitely things that other schools are doing ... that we should be doing to increase that number. Even increasing the number of Pell grant students by three to five percent would drastically change what this university looks like,” Breza said.

Zhen, a Tufts Community Union (TCU) senator for the Class of 2019, has been coming to terms with the economic disparity at Tufts since arriving on campus.

“On my floor last year, next door to me was the kid of an economist,” Zhen said. “I’m from New York City, so is he, but he’s from Park Ave., which is a very different New York from me. Down the hall was the grandson of the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil and the guy whose dad runs Merrill-Lynch for all of continental Europe. It can feel weird in some ways.”

Breza also said that he has found it difficult to feel welcome at elite institutions such as Tufts.

“I think [the lack of socio-economic diversity] has a huge impact just on life in general ... I personally chose to go on a lower meal plan this semester, which means I’m not in the dining halls as much, which means that ... I don’t get to eat in the dining hall with my friends who are able to afford those higher meal plans,” he said. “So all these social spaces are also created.”

Zhen agreed but also said he feels there has recently been greater awareness about the issue.

“I think it’s both that the political moment highlights this and that it’s always been an issue. At Tufts, there’s more of a conversation about certain privileges, being from certain backgrounds and the advantages that come with those backgrounds,” he said. “I think low-income students have felt discomfort before the election even started but that the conversation is a bit easier to have now.”

Zhen explained that as a low-income student as well as a student of color, he does not have access to spaces on campus that were designed by and for wealthy students -- namely Greek organizations, which have historically been both racially and economically exclusionary. Zhen also tied the movement to abolish Greek life on campus to increasing concerns about socioeconomic diversity.

“How amazing would it be if we turned a space on Pro Row that’s a Greek life house into housing or a center for low-income students? How great would it be if we could reclaim this space that is so classist, so exclusionary, so inherently racist, homophobic and transphobic, and we reclaimed it as a space for students who have traditionally been marginalized by these groups?” Zhen said. “I think that’d be incredible.”

Mack, formerly an associate dean of academic advising whose new job is part of Dowling’s recent reorganization efforts, told the Daily that he has had many conversations about Tufts’ lack of socioeconomic diversity with the first generation and QuestBridge students he advises.

“I would say that it’s certainly an ongoing topic in conversation I have with students -- the diversity on campus, the financial challenges students face on campus ... I think this impacts people in very, very different ways and what else they bring to the table besides their socioeconomic background,” he said.

Mack added that students also often discussed the need for more resources dedicated to making life easier for low-income students who are already on campus, and said that his new position is part of a series of efforts the university is undertaking to address financial barriers students face at Tufts.

According to Mack, these efforts include increasing access to mental health resources, publicizing information about resources that already exist and instituting programs like Swipe it Forward to help high-need students with everyday needs, in addition to increasing their access to certain opportunities.

“We’ve identified a new fund to help students access opportunities on campus that they might have passed on because of funding issues,” Mack said. “Those are things coming out of this office that we haven’t done at Tufts before ... so I do think there’s been thoughtfulness, and I think there’s some financial commitment to it, and I think we’re doing some good stuff there.”

Mack highlighted a new initiative started last year by former Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas called Equity, Access for Student Equality (EASE), which over the course of the past year collected over 300 responses and comments from low-income students.

EASE is chaired by Dr. Linda Daniels, who was hired last April as a staff psychologist and liaison to the Africana Center, according to an April 26 Daily article.

Mack said he is optimistic that the EASE initiative will help improve campus life for Tufts’ high-need students.

“If you want to make massive changes in a university, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of momentum from a lot of different places, and I think this committee is one of the components in that process,” he said.

According to Victory, EASE is working to bring together disparate resources and support for low-income students, something that can prove challenging.

“The major challenge is coordination, for lack of a better term, sort of creating a one-stop shop for students who have financial need,” Victory said. “I think we’re working toward that … to be able to coordinate all these financial resources for students so they can really go one place and sort of say, ‘Here’s all the things that I can apply for or the people that I can ask about helping support me financially through my college career.’”

Daniels was unable to respond to the Daily’s request for comment before publication.

While the university is taking steps to increase support for low-income students already on campus, the reality is that these students continue to encounter challenges as a direct result of Tufts’ lack of socioeconomic diversity. Additionally, limited substantive efforts have been made recently to expand access to the university for more low-income students.

Breza said that students are not always sensitive to the different needs and experiences of their low-income peers and that this can be difficult and alienating for students who are financially strained.

“There are so many students on this campus who, because they don’t have to think about it, aren’t thinking about it. And that does take a toll on a select few amount of students here,” he said.

For Kirby, it comes down to one question: “How do you thrive in a community that wasn’t built for you?”

While the Times article reinvigorated frustrations about the lack of socioeconomic diversity on campus, student efforts to push for increased university support for students with high financial need are not new.

TSA released the demands of their #HaltTheHike campaign on Nov. 1, 2016. These demands focused on transparency, accessibility and accountability surrounding financial aid and tuition.

In response to student feedback and conversations with members of the TCU Senate, the financial aid office reinstated a previously existing Financial Aid Student Advisory Board (FASAB) in January, according to Reilly.

According to a Jan. 13 email sent to members of the Tufts community, the advisory board will serve as a communication channel between students and the financial aid office.

“The purpose of the [FASAB] will be to offer advice and feedback to the Tufts Financial Aid staff concerning issues of student services and outreach and to act as a sounding board and focus group for our programs and services,” the email, signed by Assistant Director of Financial Aid Wenimo Poweigha, said.

Breza, who also sits on the FASAB, said that prior to the #HaltTheHike campaign, there was almost no communication between the student body and the financial aid office. But while Breza hopes the board will lead to more accountability in the financial aid office, he said that no structural changes are likely to emerge from its existence.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be an incredible mechanism to hold the financial aid office accountable, but it’s a good way for some students to provide feedback that otherwise wouldn’t get to the office,” he said.

Though Breza would like to see large-scale changes -- for example, Tufts becoming a need-blind institution -- he said that smaller changes can have an impact.

“I don’t know that there will be large changes that come from [FASAB], but things like making sure financial aid officers’ contact info is on the website, small things like that that actually do make a difference in people’s interactions with the office are important and are not useless changes,” he said.

Zhen, who also sits on the board, expressed doubts regarding whether FASAB will be an effective way to make the changes that he feels are important, calling it a “rubber stamp formality.”

“I think the [FASAB] is moving too slowly,” he said. “It’s only meeting monthly, and I’m not totally clear on how anything we say will be taken into effect.”

Zhen said that he doesn’t expect the board to lead to concrete change.

“From what I’ve experienced, these are just measures to say that they did something. And I think this is the case with the FASAB, it’s to say ‘we have this,’” he said. “To me, it seems like a great deflection tool.”

Zhen said that, ideally, the university would switch to a policy of community-based budgeting.

“Community-based budgeting doesn’t mean having students come up to the table and telling them what’s going to happen and just having them deal with it. It means having students and family members at the table making decisions with them,” he said.

According to Zhen, this would vastly improve transparency in university budgeting, an issue that was included in the #HaltTheHike movement’s demands last November.

“Having a say in the money and where that goes — if they can’t approve funding for something without student and faculty approval, that’s real power,” Zhen said.

As Reilly pointed out, the FASAB was not meant to give students any say in how the university’s budget is distributed but rather to streamline communication between students and the financial aid office.

Poweigha, who is in charge of the FASAB, declined to comment for this article.

Zhen said that any students who responded to the Jan. 13 email were able to participate in the FASAB. According to Reilly, students on the board suggested a variety of improvements at the first meeting, which took place on Feb. 10.

“We wanted the students to drive the discussion to let us know what they feel is important,” Reilly told the Daily in an email. “Some of the suggestions were ideas for improved communications from our office, an FAQ section on the website and offering clear information to incoming first-years well before they arrive for orientation. The next meeting will be focusing primarily on ideas for improvements to our website.”

The student push for university support of low-income students is not confined to the financial aid office, however. Kirby, concerns about the cost of off-campus housing heightened as she and other students began looking for houses last semester. In fact, Kirby had a house she planned to live in before realizing that she would not be able to afford the deposit.

As QuestBridge’s Tufts chapter liaison, Kirby had several sophomores and juniors approach her with similar worries regarding off-campus housing.

“I had at least 10 or 15 students [come up to me] just so stressed out about it, because they weren’t clear about how the housing worked, if they would have housing, things like that,” she said.

Zhen expressed similar concerns about the often-prohibitive cost of off-campus housing.

“Off-campus housing as a whole is just very inaccessible for low-income students,” he said. “I don’t have the money to pay up front, the refund comes in too late for many students [and] finding that money to pay the first deposit, pay rent, that’s a lot.”

Zhen added that many low-income students are often needed at home over breaks and that signing a lease on an off-campus house can be inconvenient for those who cannot pay rent before school starts.

“Signing a lease does kind of anchor you to a certain location,” he said. “If I were to sign a lease over the summer, I’d feel very hesitant to actually go back to New York over the summer, even though that’s where my family is and that’s where I’m needed more.”

Zhen said that he’s had discussions with Director of the Office of Residential Life and Learning (ResLife) Yolanda King about the possibility of a new administrative hire to help students find affordable off-campus housing. This position, Associate Director of Housing Operations, will be responsible for managing various aspects of the on-campus housing system and assisting students with off-campus housing, according to a Jan. 31 article in the Daily. Zhen said he was recently told there are plans to formally create this position by the end of the semester.

Kirby said that she reached out to Mack, who set up a meeting with Associate Dean of Student Affairs Chris Rossi, King, Kirby and himself. After two meetings this month, it was decided that 20 beds in Carpenter House will be reserved for low-income and first generation students starting next semester, Kirby said.

According to Kirby, the process by which high-need students will gain access to this housing has yet to be determined. She plans to form a student committee to further discuss the creation of a center for low-income and first generation students.

Kirby said that being able to live or spend time with other people from a similar background would benefit those students who often feel like outsiders due to their socioeconomic status.

“You come in already disadvantaged with the wealth and the privilege around you, and so I think it’s important to ... first of all, have a community similar to you who faces the same struggles and to kind of navigate Tufts’ campus as a low-income or [first-generation college] student and to have the resources you need to do that,” she said.

While Zhen agreed that guaranteed housing for low-income students would reduce stress around finding housing, he also underscored the importance of having a communal space for low-income and first-generation students, whether or not that space is residential.

“Having a space where it’s like, oh all the low-income kids live here, could be a bit problematic,” he said. “But I think having a center for resources and for gathering and holding events, having that space would be helpful. And I think it certainly would help build community.”

Zhen stressed that university attempts to build community for low-income students on campus, while important, do not address the root issue: the institution’s exclusivity.

“What we really need is, instead of dedicating more beds to students who are low income, I think just having more students who are low income to fill the beds that are already there would help,” Zhen said.

According to the Times article, the average low-income Tufts student will have an income in the 76th percentile at age 34 -- just one percentage point lower than the income of the average wealthy Tufts student at the same age.

Victory said that this statistic speaks to the work that the university does to support low-income students.

“To be able to say that the students who attend Tufts who are from lower socioeconomic levels actually perform post-graduation at the same or similar levels as their higher-income colleagues -- that’s pretty spectacular when you think about it,” he said. “That article has ... shone a light for a lot of institutions on some of the challenges, but for me in the work that I do, that’s a data point that’s something that people should be celebrating too.”

Reilly similarly said that these statistics demonstrate Tufts’ capacity for supporting social mobility.

“The report shows that Tufts is seventh out of 64 highly selective schools in providing students from low income families with the opportunity to become a high-income adult,” Reilly told the Daily in an email.

However, Breza noted that this statistic merely underscores the importance of ensuring socioeconomic diversity to begin with.

“[The Times article] shows that schools like Tufts do an incredible job of accelerating students’ ability to move up in social class, so that just shows how big of a difference it can make to go to a school like Tufts,” he said. “If low-income and even middle-class students are excluded from Tufts, then they don’t get to be a part of shaping the future of America, its economy, its cultural institutions.”

According to Karen Richardson, dean of admissions and enrollment management, socioeconomic diversity in the student body is an important consideration and a desirable outcome, but it does not necessarily influence the admissions process itself.

“When reviewing applications, our goal is to evaluate on the basis of merit (academic and extracurricular) without consideration of a family’s finances,” Richardson told the Daily in an email. “When we are shaping the class, we do have to stay within the confines of our aid budget and make some tough decisions. But, by reviewing applications the way we do, we are maximizing our resources while also ensuring that students who are the best fits for Tufts are offered admission.”

But as Breza pointed out, increasing Tufts’ socioeconomic diversity would ensure the social mobility of the largest number of students.

“Whether we like it or not, schools like Tufts and other private schools are the quickest way to make change in our current society, the quickest way to move up in social classes, so it’s vital that these schools are actually educating America instead of the 1 percent, which is what they’re currently doing,” he said.